With the revelation Wednesday that as many as three dozen Americans who converted to Islam in prison may now be in Yemen, Washington has become even more concerned about the country’s potential as a terrorist haven. US officials have said they plan to increase development assistance to the impoverished country this year to about $63 million.
But both Washington’s concerns and its promises of aid pale in comparison to those of Saudi Arabia, which has pledged $1.25 billion for development assistance to the troubled country on its southern border.
Like the US, Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned that if the complex web of social, economic, and political problems in this strategically located country are not soon addressed, Yemen could become a redoubt for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for trying to blow up a Detroit-bound plane Christmas Day.
But Saudi Arabia’s proximity to Yemen – they share a long and rugged mountainous border – poses a host of other concerns for Riyadh.
They include a potentially dragged-out border conflict with Yemeni rebels that already has left at least 100 Saudis dead or missing since November, as well as the possibility of refugee-generated civil strife from a secessionist movement in Yemen’s south.
In addition, Yemen’s worsening economic conditions could fuel militancy among an increasingly impoverished population of 23 million.
Finally, there are fears in Riyadh that Yemen’s deteriorating stability could present an opportunity for meddling by Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis Iran, which has been publicly denouncing the Kingdom for alleged interference in Yemeni affairs.
Why Saudis support Saleh
The Saudis are attempting to preempt these challenges by shoring up the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, despite its widespread reputation for corruption and incompetence.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly stated its political support for President Saleh. In addition to the $1.25 billion it has pledged for development aid, it spends millions more each year to bolster Yemen’s military and security institutions and buy political influence among the country’s important tribal leaders.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is spending millions to build a high-tech electronic barrier along its 1,125-mile border with Yemen in an effort to stop crossings not only by drugs and arms dealers, but also by Al Qaeda militants.
But some outside observers express fears that Riyadh and its five wealthy Gulf neighbors, who make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have not yet come up with a clear strategy to deal with the festering problems of their neighbor, one of the poorest countries in the world.
“If you’re just propping up an increasingly inefficient government whose reach doesn’t really extend much beyond [the Yemeni capital of] Sanaa that’s not exactly an ideal or long-term position to be in,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, Kuwait Research Fellow at the London School of Economics.
Dr. Ulrichsen said that Gulf policymakers he met with during a regional tour this past October did not seem prepared to address Yemen’s multifaceted crisis “beyond trying to contain it and support Saleh.”
“I got the impression that it was so overwhelming an issue and so complex, that they were just hoping it would go away,” he added.
“The problem is,” says Professor Nonneman, “Yemen is not well-governed and at the root of it are questions of governance at the political and economic levels, and unless those things are addressed properly, the problem is never going to go away.”
Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg, director general of international economic relations at the Gulf Cooperation Council, says that in 2006 the GCC pledged $3.7 billion for development assistance to Yemen – which is not a GCC member – for the years 2007-10. That sum included the $1.25 billion pledged by Riyadh.
But so far, only about 20 percent of that amount has been utilized on specific projects, in large part because of Yemen’s limited technical capacity to deal with large levels of foreign aid, Dr. Aluwaisheg says.
“Most experts realize that Yemen needs a lot more than the $5.5 billion pledged in 2006 ... and most donors would be willing to give more,” Aluwaisheg said. “But it has to be done the right way ... and without improving aid absorption capacity, it would be pointless to do so.”
Aluwaisheg said that for the time being, Yemen seems to be managing its internal problems, “but obviously everybody should be concerned that if something is not done quickly to improve aid delivery and effectiveness, the situation might get worse.”
London conference on Yemen
On Jan. 28, Gulf states and other donors will have a forum to address Yemen’s internal problems again when Britain sponsors a conference in London on how to counter radicalization in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s biggest worry is the presence in Yemen of AQAP, which has found safe haven in Yemen’s vast tribal areas where some sheikhs are sympathetic to Al Qaeda’s message.
In August, an AQAP member came close to assassinating Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister, Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, when he exploded a bomb hidden in his body at the prince’s home in Jeddah.
Since mid-December, Saleh’s government has been going after the Al Qaeda group much more aggressively, assisted by military and intelligence officials from both Saudi and the US.
“Ali never saw Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a big problem for him,” says F. Gregory Gause, a Gulf expert at the University of Vermont. “Now he does, and I think that is because of us and the Saudis.”
Prolonged fight against Houthi rebels
It is too soon to know how badly damaged the Al Qaeda franchise has been by the government’s new assertiveness. Although Yemen has claimed to have killed and captured top leaders of the group, Saudi officials said they have not yet gotten proof of these claims, which AQAP members have also disputed.
Meanwhile, the Saudis also have been helping Yemen militarily against the Houthi rebels in the north, who have been battling the Yemeni government since 2004 to redress cultural, economic, and religious grievances.
The Saudi involvement escalated in early November when Riyadh responded to a fatal cross-border raid with a full-scale artillery and air assault against the rebels.
Much is unclear about the fighting since then because both the Saudi and Yemeni governments have not allowed journalists to visit the area. But after more than two months, the Saudis appear unable to attain their goal of a rebel-free zone along the border extending several miles inside Yemen.
And the cost is mounting. Last week, Prince Khaled bin Sultan, assistant minister of defense and aviation, who is leading the military campaign, disclosed that 82 Saudi soldiers had been killed, 21 are missing and 39 wounded. On Jan. 21, the Associated Press reported a new total of 113 soldiers dead, a figure it attributed to Saudi Maj. Gen. Ali Zaid al-Khawaji in remarks he made to Al Riyadh newspaper.
Riyadh has deep suspicions that Iran may be giving covert aid to the Houthi rebels, but there has been no clear evidence of that so far.
While Saudi Arabia refuses to negotiate with the Houthi rebels, it believes that the Yemeni government should do so once the rebels have been further weakened, says Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism Studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
“I think the Saudis and Yemenis are convinced that ... they must inflict a heavy military defeat on the Houthis so they will be ready to talk from a position of weakness,” Alani said.
“And this is happening,” he added, noting that Houthi statements on the rebel group’s website “are much softer” now than before.